How humanitarianism became political and went off to war…(1)

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 3-4.

The notion of a ‘responsibility to act’ lies at the heart of the humanitarian impulse. It motivates those who care about human rights in far-off places – and it was what had taken me from Kosovo to Kabul. Whether it is writing a letter for Amnesty International or dropping a coin into an Oxfam collecting tin, the idea that we should ‘do something’ to help alleviate human suffering underpins our basic concept of global solidarity.

Despite what they have in common, human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) approach the issue of international interventions from quite different standpoints. Human rights organizations seek to promote universal observance and respect for human rights, defined as a set of entitlements each individual should possess by virtue of their humanity. The enjoyment of these rights is an indispensable aspect of being human, and thus considered indivisible, inalienable and universal. Through their political advocacy, human rights activists are interventionists in support of these objectives.

Humanitarian organizations also base themselves on universal standards, primarily those contained within the Geneva Conventions, sometimes referred to as the ‘rules of war’. They are interventionist in that their activists are directly involved in providing relief assistance during conflicts and natural disasters. However, they have traditionally relied on neutrality to gain access to these places. They do not have an overarching vision for how societies should be ordered, and consciously restrict themselves to helping certain categories of people on a temporary basis.

These two movements have drawn increasingly close together, giving rise to what could be called ‘political humanitarianism’. Until recently, this phrase would have been considered a contradiction in terms since one of humanitarianism’s defining features was its reluctance to comment on political issues. During the 1990s, however, a number of humanitarian organizations, particularly in Britain and North America, began to advocate for international military interventions during grave humanitarian crises. Drawing on the language of universal human rights, they stated that the international community has a ‘right’, or even a ‘duty’, to intervene in certain circumstances, to protect people and uphold basic moral standards. …


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